I am going to start this in the middle because I am stalled out on writing about the beginning of our trip to nephew Jason’s wedding. We spent Sunday night at Mike Moore’s and Linda Fleming’s in the Smoke Creek with a plan of going to Eastern Oregon on Monday morning. The reason for the visit, in addition to seeing Mike and Linda, was to get some travel pointers from Mike. He has wandered around this area more than anybody we know, has the same aesthetic as we do, and generously shares the best, hidden, places.
Mike suggested that we wander around the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in most northwestern Nevada, before we go to Oregon. And before we go to the Sheldon Refuge, he suggested stopping at Floating Island Books in Cedarville, California. Getting our usual late start, we turned off the gravel Smoke Creek Road onto an actual paved road at about 11:30 Monday morning. In this case, the paved road is Highway 447 which goes north into Cedarville and beyond. Cedarville is in Surprise Valley and the surprise is water and the agriculture – and the power lines – that comes with it.
This corner of the West – the corners of California and Nevada which sort of bleed into Oregon – is both more remote and more populated than the areas we usually visit. This is the eastern edge of the proposed State of Jefferson, composed of counties in Oregon and California that feel abandoned by somebody else’s government far away in Salem and Sacramento. And I think that they are right, they are pretty much abandoned and, in a fair world, they would be their own State. They think we – we being the City Dwellers in the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin – are taking their water and, of course, we are. We, in the Bay Area, have been taking it so long that we think it is ours and we even get indignant that some of our water is going south to L.A.
I-5 goes through this area and tourists blast along the highway on their way to someplace else, thinking that it is homogeneous and desolate and boring. Off of I-5, almost nobody drives through on the way to someplace else (well, almost nobody, I guess, since we did). But, getting off of I-5, wandering around the two lane roads – both gravel and paved – reveals a rich, vibrant, and varied world. Wherever there is water there seemed to be large farming and ranching operations, and almost every road junction has gas available and often a small market/restaurant. One of those junctions – where 447 crosses the road from Alturas to the Sheldon Reserve – is Cedarville. While Cedarville is not officially a town – the Federal Government calls it a census-designated place – it is much too big to just call a road junction. It has several restaurants, a market, a beauty shop, and Floating Island Books, owned and run by Michael Sykes.
Michael had moved here from West Marin where he had previously owned a bookstore – still Floating Island, I think – in Point Reyes and this bookstore has a West Marin/Point Reyes vibe for lack of a better way to describe it. It is the kind of bookstore – and Michael is the kind of bookseller – where I can ask about a book by Loren Eiseley and be offered a choice of two, long out of print, books. I bought one, The Night Country: Reflections of a Bone -Hunting Man, that became my main campsite entertainment.
Here is one passage I particularly liked, I have said that the ruins of every civilization are the marks of men trying to express themselves, to leave an impression upon the earth. We in the modern world have turned more stones, listened to more buried voices, than any other culture before us. There should be a kind of pity that comes with time, when one grows truly conscience and looks behind as well as forward, for nothing is more brutally savage than the man who is not aware he is a shadow. Nothing is more real than the real, and that is why it is well for men to hurt themselves with the past – it is one road tolerance. Another road to tolerance is out here, just east of Jefferson.
When we told him, where we were going, Michael got out his pencil and traced a few suggested roads on a more detailed map (interestingly enough his suggestions pretty much matched Mike Moore’s). The next day we went to lunch in Fields – at a restaurant that had been recommended as having the best hamburgers in the area – and Fields could not have been more different than Cedarville. Fields has a population of twelve, making Cedarville look huge with its population of 514 – down from 849 in 2000 – but we only met three of the locals and they were all armed, giving Fields a bit of a Mad Max in the afterscape vibe.
Fields is really only a store and restaurant, in the same building, with a couple of gas pumps in front (and four motel rooms somewhere). When I first walked into the store/restaurant at Fields , I noticed that the guy behind the counter had an automatic pistol, in a holster, hanging off his belt. It took me back a little. When I walked down a couple of stairs into the restaurant, I was struck by three things at the same time; the cook was a very attractive, young woman, she was armed with a nasty little snub-nosed automatic, and she was cooking more bacon than I have ever seen in one place. I remarked that I didn’t have a gun and felt sort of naked, she answered, I don’t blame you, I would feel naked without a gun too, and I relaxed, figuring a sense of humor and bacon will trump the gun.
Michele and I both ordered bacon burgers with fries and they were terrific. So was the homemade ice tea served in a glass.
I’m not a gun guy, but if somebody were going to carry a weapon, this seemed like the right place to do it. If I walked into a Starbucks in San Francisco and saw a guy with an automatic strapped to his belt, I would just quietly back out and then run, but here, it all seemed almost normal and was a good opening for a conversation. The owner’s automatic was a .45 Colt – often called a 1911 from the date it was adopted by the Army and it was lovingly finished in raw metal which just emphasized it’s craftsmanship-ness. Sandy and Tom Downs own Fields Station and, like Michael Sykes and our friends, Mike Moore and Linda Fleming, they moved her from somewhere else (OK, moved there part time in Mike and Linda’s case). They probably all moved here for different reasons, however they have all self-selected to live a different, and in many ways harder, life than living in, say, the Bay Area and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have more control of that life with their own state.
As interesting as Cedarville and Fields are, they are the developed areas and we came here to see the undeveloped areas, the areas that weren’t worth developing, the areas that are leftover.